Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Racing into the Mystery World

Tammy Kaehler Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

A day job in corporate hospitality introduced Tammy Kaehler to the world of car racing, and her fascination with the exciting and dangerous sport resulted in a mystery series featuring a female driver. Her debut novel, Dead Man’s Switch, has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press. These days Tammy fits book promotion and writing around her work as a technical writer in Los Angeles.

Q. Tell us a little about Dead Man’s Switch.

A. Dead Man’s Switch is the story of an aspiring racecar driver named Kate Reilly who goes looking for her first big break in racing—but stumbles over a dead driver instead. When she takes that driver’s job hours later, she also snags pole position on the list of suspects in his murder. Suddenly Kate’s in the hot seat: she’s got two days to get ready to go flat out in a Corvette … and even less time to clear her name. 

Q. What inspired you to combine murder and racing in a novel? Did you have a longstanding ambition to write mysteries? What made the racing world seem like the perfect setting?

A. I’d always been a reader and always loved mysteries more than anything—especially horseracing mysteries by Dick Francis, because I wanted to be friends with his characters and I felt like I learned something from his books. As for writing … to be honest, the desire to write fiction came out of nowhere about eight years ago with a marginal idea that got me started writing. Shortly after that, I was immersed in the sportscar racing world because of my day job. It wasn’t long before I realized I had access that most people don’t have—and a perspective most can’t get. I thought perhaps I could share my view of the racing world with people via my favorite medium, a mystery.

Q. You've said that you researched the sport by attending racing school. What does that involve? What kind of people were the other students? Did the instructors know you were there to research a book, not because you wanted to race cars?

A. Racing school was three days long, and the participants represented a very, very broad spectrum. At one end was me—and yes, I introduced myself saying I was there for research because I was writing a book. At the other end were three young men, recent finalists in a reality TV competition for drivers, who’d all been signed by a top NASCAR team and who were looking to brush up on their road racing (i.e., non-oval track) skills. The instructors at the school were kind enough to do as much hand-holding as I needed during the school—while absolutely NOT putting me on track in the same practice group as the NASCAR kids! 

We went through three days of driving exercises, plus some bits of classroom work and discussion. We started in a street car on a skid pad (wet concrete), moved to a small autocross course, learned to heel-and-toe downshift in the racecars, and so on. By the end of day two we were doing laps on our own around the racetrack. By far, the highlight of the school was when an instructor—a professional driver who subsequently helped me get my racing details right—took me around the track in the racecar I’d been driving. That was the best rollercoaster ride I’ve ever had—and worth the entire price of admission!

Q. Are there many women race car drivers? Do you think there’s a bias against women – or is it simply a sport few women are interested in? Has your character, Kate, faced any hazing or more subtle discrimination?

A. There are a small number of female racecar drivers in every major category of motorsports, and there are more young women climbing the junior ranks every day. I think there’s less bias in the racing world today than in the past, and certainly there are fewer restrictions. One woman who raced in the 1950s, Denise McCluggage, was never allowed to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, though she had a deal to be on a team running one of the first Corvette racecars. At the time, the (French) organizers of the race refused to let women compete, for fear they might be injured. Can you imagine that discrimination happening today? Kate has mostly been met with shrugs about her gender, though occasionally she’s surprised by a discriminatory attitude on the part of a fellow driver, team member, or even fan.

Q. How does a driver make it into a major race? What kind of racing background did Kate need to get that far?

A. To even hold your own in a major race, a driver has to put in a lot of hours and miles behind the wheel. Amateur or “gentlemen” drivers can make their way into some levels of racing with middling experience and a big checkbook, but they won’t last long there if their performance isn’t up to par. Professionals, those who are paid to drive, not paying for the privilege, have often been racing since they were old enough to reach the pedals of a go-kart, and in building Kate’s background, I drew from the stories of a number of pros. Kate started racing go-karts or “karts” at eight and won local, state, and national karting titles for different age groups. At 18, she moved up to open-wheel “formula” cars, and at 24 we find her in Dead Man’s Switch, getting her first big break in a top-level series.

Q. Since you’re not a racer yourself, how do you get into the right frame of mind to write a racing scene? Do you call on any experiences that you found frightening and exhilarating?

A. I watch a lot of racing, mostly on broadcast television. But I’ll also search out the in-car shots from the track or car I’m writing about, so I can see the exact view out of the car that Kate would have. It also helps to attend races in person at least a couple times a year, because the feeling of the paddock during a race—buzzing with tension, excitement, hope, and fear—is what I’m trying to capture in those scenes.

Q. Would you tell us about your road to publication? Was it harder or easier than you expected to sell this book?

A. It seemed like it took forever to go from finished manuscript to published book, but I know that my journey wasn’t as long as it might have been. I also realize I’m lucky that the first book I submitted was actually published. That said, the journey was harder than I expected.

The first draft of Dead Man’s Switch took about a year and a half to write and polish. I sent out queries to agents and got one, Lucienne Diver, in just a few short weeks. Of course, at that point, I had stars in my eyes and unreasonable expectations in my head! Lucienne made the rounds of the major publishers, who all passed—frequently offering competing likes and dislikes as feedback, so there was nothing I could pinpoint to fix. After many years of searching for a home for Kate, Poisoned Pen Press expressed interest, and a year later, here we are!

Q. Has anything about publishing surprised or disappointed you? What have you learned that you wish you’d known a couple of years ago?

A. If you’d asked me before I got the publication contract, I’d have said, “Yes, sure, I understand, authors have to do their own promotion.” But I didn’t REALLY understand all the different facets of promotion, marketing, PR, in-person appearances, social networking, guest blogging, and so on that “promotion” could encompass. It took me three or four months of feeling like I was drinking from the firehose just to get my arms around what was possible, normal, doable, and comfortable given my personality and preferences. So that was certainly a surprise and something I wish I’d understood better—though at the same time, it might be something you have to experience to fully comprehend. I can’t say I have any disappointments … I’m still just happy to be here!

Q. Where will Kate’s next adventure take place?
A. Kate’s next adventure is going to take place at two tracks in two different states. It’ll start with Kate in a race at Road America, an historic racetrack in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. After a little trouble there and at one of the racing world’s favorite watering holes, Siebken’s Tavern, Kate will head to Atlanta for a week of sponsor activities, family drama, mystery solving, and of course, Petit Le Mans, the season-ending 10-hour endurance race.

Visit Tammy's website at


E. B. Davis said...

Congratulations Tammy. I can imagine the thrill of getting an agent, and then the disappointment of publishers not taking the book. But you landed on your feet with Poisoned Pen Press.

What you said on promotion makes sense-what is doable for each author given each personality type. That common sense makes me feel better about promotion. No one can do it all.

Good luck on the book!

Jeri Westerson said...

Tammy, here's hoping readers will race to the bookstore to pick up your book!

Julia Buckley said...

Fascinating! Thanks for this great interview, Tammy and Sandra.

Tammy said...

Thanks, all! And E.B., I came to that decision about promotion the hard way ... thinking I could do, if not all, more than I thought I could! Everyone says "do what is right for you," but what I found is that I had to almost taste-test each type of activity to figure out what felt right. Live and learn, right?!